Limited progress after two weeks of Katowice climate talks
Absence of France, Germany and UK from COP24 hindered carbon emission goal
The backdrop coming into the UN annual climate summit was dire; from where the world is at in responding to global warming to scientific indications of how climate breakdown looms on the horizon.
Three years after the optimism of Paris, the world was in a darker place having reached a point where most of its 7.6 billion people are probably aware by now of the risks they face from climate change due to more severe and more frequent floods, droughts and wildfires.
Global carbon emissions are on the rise, especially in the US and China, the world’s largest economies – with evidence of other countries backsliding on their commitments under the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. All that did not help the mood.
As politicians and diplomats met in Katowice, Poland, seeking to sign off on a guidebook to bring the deal into effect from 2020, the days of commitments under the agreement being only as good as the willingness of national leaders to keep their word were due to come to an end. If that is delivered on in the next two short years based on what was agreed, COP24 can then be considered a success.
The end of the first week was a low point marked by a political stalemate when big oil and gas producer countries led by the US and Saudi Arabia refused to “welcome” the latest findings of the UN’s climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change.
IPCC chair Hoesung Lee was to later to underline its significance; that the temperature goal (containing global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees) is achievable “but that this can only happen if governments take urgent and far-reaching action in all aspects of society, with many implications for policymaking”.
UN general-secretary António Guterres attempted to reset the agenda going into the final days: “To waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change. It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”
Coming into the final stretch, Xie Zhenhua, China’s senior climate official, warned negotiations were “deadlocked” in critical areas, and urged the US to return to the process and “use its leadership”.
By the last official day of negotiations, there was still no resolution in sight for critical issues such as financing for developing countries’ climate efforts – though some progress on this was achieved by close of business. But an obvious alliance between the EU and China (especially on having a common rulebook) was coming good in getting a deal of significance over the line.
While an earlier side meeting with US officials delivering the usual pro-coal line from Trump generated headlines, concerns that the US would be hostile in the negotiation rooms proved mostly unfounded – the state department was a constructive force. Beside China, the US oversaw the drafting of the rules governing transparency, a central aspect of the rulebook. An absence of the heavyweight political presence of France, Germany and the UK due to domestic factors was evident throughout the two weeks.
It was a row over carbon credits awarded to countries for their emissions-cutting efforts and their carbon sinks, such as carbon-absorbing forests, that was the big stumbling block, forcing talks into the weekend.
Credits count towards countries’ emissions-cutting targets. Brazil, hoping to benefit from its large rainforest cover, repeatedly sought a new wording, which environmental NGOs insisted would allow double counting of credits, undermining the integrity of the system.
Package of rules
A package of rules on trading carbon credits across borders was deferred to 2019, after a standoff between Brazil and a coalition of European and climate-vulnerable countries.
Ireland consistently supported EU moves to ensure greater transparency and better reporting mechanisms for accounting of national greenhouse gas commitments. It helped strengthen “capacity building”, an essential climate action in developing countries.
The Republic did not join the 27 countries who have formed the Coalition for Higher Ambition, who committed to scaling up commitments in line to Paris targets during the COP. Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton flagged to NGOs he met in Katowice that Irish climate commitments would be made when he was sure they could be delivered on.
Ireland did, however, join an initiative with eight other EU countries to work together on establishing a carbon floor price. The signatories believe carbon pricing, with supporting policies and measures, will send a clear long-term signal to markets by incentivising cost-effect reductions in carbon emissions – and in turn disincentivising new investments in carbon-intensive technologies. They have endorsed the need for a just transition and the creation of high-value jobs in low-carbon sectors.
Lead negotiator Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, believes the rulebook is the basis for a transformative process which will require strengthened ambition from the international community. “Science has clearly shown that we need enhanced ambition to defeat climate change.”
Whether the response matches what the science says the world needs to do over the next decade is already being widely challenged by climatologists, environmental economists and NGOS.
There is clearly insufficient progress on persuading countries to make firm commitments to cut their emissions further than they have already promised. COP24, none the less, has produced a common rulebook with most elements underpinned by clarity after achieving consensus among 195 states. The greater ambition and urgency desperately sought by so many outside the talks remains elusive.